Fearful About An Event On The Horizon? Tips from an Anxious Comedian

Fearful About An Event On The Horizon? Tips from an Anxious Comedian

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Confidence

The first time I ever spoke in front of a large audience, I was terrified. Even the ironic comfort that the topic was “my fear of public speaking” didn’t help.

My legs trembled so hard that I worried I might fall over. I could barely concentrate on what I was saying, only wondering what everybody must be making of my uncontrollably jiggly legs.

Afterwards, to my surprise, many people told me I’d done well and that they’d related to what I’d said. And, somehow, I’d even managed to be entertaining.

Since that day, I’ve delivered hundreds of talks to audiences sized from dozens to thousands, and in places as diverse as conferences, schools and comedy clubs. But this has been a tough journey, and it’s not over yet.

At first, I would be extremely aware of any upcoming talks, perhaps for months in advance. The date of the event would be seared into my brain, and as it approached my nerves would wind more and more tightly. By the day itself, I’d be a wreck; anxious, stressed, unable to speak to anyone, a mess… right up until the moment I stepped onto stage, at which point everything would be more-or-less okay.

Luckily, over the years, this anxiety no longer looks like this high-impact, long-term stress. These days, I’m barely anxious about talks in advance, but they do still disproportionately disrupt my life. For example, on days when I’m speaking later, I struggle to concentrate on anything else, and this means that even a brief, easy speaking engagement can lead to wasted time, lost productivity, and unnecessary stress.

Much of what I learned can be applied to situations beyond giving presentations. Submitting applications, being interviewed, and even going on dates are all events that can cause a lot of anxiety in the lead-up.

So how did I reduce my anxiety of public speaking… and can it be reduced further?

How I Got Here

As with most things I’ve ever done, I have no idea how this improvement happened.

It’s not like I came up with a plan to alleviate the anxiety. I just kept repeatedly putting myself into the situation, and eventually things seemed to just get better. But after some reflection, I can see two ingredients which may have helped the most:

1. Gather Evidence

Each successful talk was evidence that they weren’t as scary as I thought. Of course, knowing this doesn’t magically reduce stress on its own, so I found that keeping a list of “times things were okay” helped to make my brain confront the growing weight of evidence that I shouldn’t be as scared as I was.

I originally used this idea to manage my health anxiety (a literal tally chart of “times I didn’t die”), but it could help with any repeat anxiety. Tallying, listing or charting all the times the fear was worse than the event forces even the most stubbornly anxious brain to update its belief that doom is inevitable.

2. Embrace Failure

I am not perfect. Nothing I do is perfect. Nothing I will do is perfect. And this is all okay.

It’s very easy to say this, but harder to believe it. So I’ve consciously tried to become comfortable with failure at all stages of the process.

Beforehand, I remind myself that it’s absolutely fine if this talk doesn’t go perfectly—or even if it goes actively badly. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve found it helpful to visualize the imaginary disaster in detail—as that is less scary than the vague anxiety I usually sit with—and pointing out to myself that failure would be okay. After all, after a terrible gig, most of the audience would have forgotten by tomorrow, so why should I torture myself over it for longer?

I also make backup plans for the situations my brain is most scared about—like, for example, “what if my mind goes blank?” In that case, I might plan to say something like “Sorry, I’ve forgotten what I’m saying, and I promised myself that if that happened I’d do a silly dance until what I’m saying comes back.” The specifics aren’t important, as having a plan at all releases the tension without my having to think, and that usually solves the problem entirely.

Where I Can Go Next

The above strategies have helped me to be less anxious, but I still struggle with public speaking in a way that I don’t with other work. Much of it is rooted in a feeling that I should be preparing more, that any time spent doing something else is wasted, or is going to doom me to disaster when the event rolls around.

Of course, I’ve met plenty of famous comics who still get nervous before every gig, so I’m under no illusion that it’s always possible to be completely free of nerves.

But here are a couple of ideas I’m going to try to even further reduce this anxiety:

Idea #1: Do The Work, and Do No More

Part of the problem is that there’s a literal infinite amount of work you could do beforehand.

I could rewrite and rewrite, memorize and memorize, practice and practice, and there’d never come a point at which I’m definitively finished. (In other situations, you might change outfit a thousand times, redo your hair again and again, pick out different shoe combinations… and never be finished.) 

To avoid this sort of overthinking, it would help to choose a stopping point in advance.

For example, I might decide that once I’ve redrafted a talk a couple of times, and practiced it, say, five times, then unless there’s a really good reason, I’ll allow myself to call it “done.” Depending on your personality type, setting these conditions may seem unnecessary–but for chronic overpreparers, deciding in advance what ‘finished’ means could be a real lifesaver.

Idea #2: Planned Distractions

Ironically, my other problem is down to a lack of planning. Unless I have something particular to do, I usually decide which work to prioritize on the day itself. This is great for long periods of unstructured time, when I can follow my motivation.

But when there’s a short period before a deadline—say, before a talk—having nothing particular planned means I default to “deadline preparation.” Which means either sitting around worrying, or uselessly repeating preparation. If I’m following Idea #1 and am preventing myself from needlessly re-preparing, then there’s a good chance I’ll just be doing nothing but sitting in a big bubble of worry.

Planning further ahead would solve this problem. If I save short tasks to fit into the hours before a talk, instead of wondering what to do and then falling into a habitual stress-hole, I could get absorbed in the scheduled task instead. Whether it’s something mindless like chores, or something creative and exciting, it would help to remove the decision from the day itself.

What Do You Think?

I’ll report back on whether these ideas work or not. I hope sharing what I’ve learned so far and what I’m planning to do next is helpful for your own reflections. We all have our means of handling anxiety-inducing events, and I’d love to hear your tips on managing them too.

Your Turn

How do you handle anxiety about upcoming events? Share your stories and strategies with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello at enhughesiasm.com.

6 Comments

  1. Oh I so hear you Neil! I suffered terrible performance anxiety from childhood, and struggled through giving talks in class at high school and university. After leaving a management job 15 years ago during which time public speaking continued to be a challenge for me, I swore I would never speak in public again.

    So how did I end up teaching at a university?! My tips and personal experience can be summed up as follows:
    1. Ask what drives you? I have a strong commitment to equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to practice social work.
    2. What do you know about, that you love to talk about? My enthusiasm for my subject matter outweighs my fear of sharing it.
    3. Use positive feedback as reinforcement. It turned out that students were interested in what I had to say, and receiving good feedback informally and through formal university processes boosted my confidence no end.
    4. Get over yourself! I disentangled my self from my performance, let go of concern about what others were thinking of me, and allowed myself to be a bit more vulnerable. And came to realise that most of the anxiety was anticipatory – once I got started I was mostly fine.
    5. Find a champion. Above all, I had an academic supervisor who could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. I really valued her encouragement and belief in me.

    I’ve just resigned from this job – more about that in this blog post: http://www.josimplywill.org/perspectives-on-work/reflections-on-resigning/ But can I say that this job was utterly transformational for me on a personal level, particularly in regards to conquering a decades-long fear of public speaking.

    I agree that it can be a bit hard to pinpoint exactly how the shift away from intense fear of public speaking occurs. It is a gradual process in which exposure plays a significant part, coupled with knowing one’s topic, and being driven to continue by a strong connection to one’s values and greater purpose.

    All the best Neil as you continue to meet this challenge!

  2. Nemanja Talic says:

    Hi Neil, my toughts are that after event photo or a new good habit can maybe be usefull as an evidence that things went okay. Is there too much of long term planing?

    Nemania from Serbia

  3. Maryske says:

    As someone who really enjoys being on stage and talking in front of an audience, I can’t really relate to this exact problem, but both “deciding in advance what ‘finished’ means” and “planning distractions” look like highly useful advice for other situations!

    So thanks, Neil!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Excellent! I hoped it would resonate in other ways too – our struggles manifest differently but often the same techniques can help with them.

      Although I should point out I *also* enjoy speaking on stage… it’s the anxious buildup that I don’t like, as my brain worries about it WAY more than is justified, particularly given I actually find it fun in the moment. Thanks brain.

      (And thanks Maryske :D)

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